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Last week I had the good fortune of attending Coptic Orphans’ own Hanan Baky give a talk at the first-ever Global Summit on Childhood in Washington, DC. The summit drew 700, and was an impressive accomplishment of new director Diana Whitehead. I’ve written out the substance of Hanan’s talk based on my notes below.

There’s different data on just how many individuals are illiterate in Egypt. But cutting through to the real statistics is more difficult due to systemic problems with Egypt’s educational system.

There are currently three problems with the Egyptian educational system: the schools, the teachers and the curriculum.


Egyptian schools are overcrowded. There are no extra-curricular activities. In fact, there are no opportunities at all for students to express themselves: just an emphasis on conformity. Diversity expands creativity, but Egypt’s students are expected to stuff themselves into the same mold.


Teachers are the boss in an Egyptian classroom. They speak and students passively take in information which is then regurgitated correctly. Teachers often don’t get the training they need, and have to invest most of their time in other work besides preparing for classroom time, because they get paid very poorly.

Students are divided into two categories: those who get exactly the “right” answer, and those who don’t. Students aren’t encouraged to think about what makes things right or wrong.

The statistics that are usually available about Egypt are enrollment and literacy. Even if literacy matters, these aren’t the statistics that matter.

The Trouble with “Literacy”

Official figures (National Planning Report: Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Programme (LAMP). Social Research Center/AUC. Cairo, May 2006) indicated that 38% of girls and 14% of boys are illiterate .

However, there are a number of problems with these figures:

  • These numbers mask the fact that illiteracy rates vary. For example, rates for rural women living in Upper Egypt are much higher than those for women in Cairo.
  • The rate of Illiteracy in Egypt is decreasing more slowly compared to other developing countries. What are the root issues here?
  • Official statistics don’t take into account those who fall through the cracks of the Egyptian educational system: either because they are being ushered through each grade without ever learning anything, or because they never enrolled in school in the first place.

 The Egypt Revolution

Compounding these factors is what emerged in the aftermath of the January 25 revolution – insecurity and personal safety.  Criminals threatened the safety of everyone, especially in rural areas.  Roads were cut, transportation vehicles were attacked and the list goes on.  Large numbers of parents decided to keep their children home from school.

People are now looking at home schooling. Will it work? I don’t think it will because there’s no infrastructure and there’s nothing to back it up.

What we’ve tried so far– bigger classrooms, more computers– isn’t enough because it fails to recognize the human factor.

Coptic Orphans, however, took quite a different approach. We decided to monitor children both at school and in their homes. We asked: how do children really learn? Where are the gaps? And how do we fill those in?

We reached one conclusion: with a lack of predictable job opportunities as adults, children must learn how to think and be creative at a very young age.

Then they will have the best chance at success no matter what they do or don’t learn in school.

Here’s one example. A woman in our microcredit program was illiterate. We knew that she couldn’t even do basic calculations. So we asked, Reda, how do you calculate your profit?

It’s very easy. I know how much I buy my product for 100 pounds. I take that and put it in one drawer until there is 100 Pounds there. Then I take what I get above that and put it into another drawer, and that’s our profit.

Reda’s critical thinking helped her work around the fact that she couldn’t read, write, or calculate figures.

Now take a child at school in rural Egypt, who learns basic addition. If you asked how much profit Reda had given in her list of expenses and income, the average student wouldn’t know because they haven’t been taught how to approach a problem creatively. That’s true illiteracy.

So how many individuals really are illiterate in Egypt?

We can’t know for sure, but in order to fix illiteracy in Egypt, we know we need to fix everything: schools, teachers, and curriculum. So we need three things:

1. A system that gives teachers training and holds them accountable to what they learn.
2. A curriculum that promotes lifelong learning
3. Teachers who show children how to create, reflect, and evaluate.

Until then, Coptic Orphans will continue to fill in the blanks of critical thinking and creativity cultivation for children everywhere in Egypt.